Week #10: The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer was a light interlude after many of my recent reads. The plot closely mirrors Lysistrata, the play that the local high school is performing. Aristophanes penned the comedy, in which the title character persuades all Greek women to withhold sex in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. As the school year begins, a spell is cast over the women of the small town that causes them to withdraw from their men. Not my favorite read so far, but fun.
Week #10: The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock
Dark and grotesquely violent, Donald Ray Pollock’s novel The Devil All The Time does graphic brutality like many of today’s television crime shows. This gritty story has a few major plotlines, but most action centers on Arvin Eugene Russell. He watches his father Willard deteriorate as his beloved mother Charlotte dies of cancer. Willard brings Arvin along as he sacrifices animals and pours their blood over his makeshift altar in the forest. After Willard’s suicide, Arvin learns to follow his father’s advice to “pick the right time” when enacting his own violence against those that pick on him and his family.
This gripping novel pulled me along in spite of all its violence. I’d recommend this novel for those who like Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds (I’m a fan of both). Also a good for those who are fans of the Southern gothic genre.
Week #9: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Julius Barnes tackles the intricacies of memory in his novel The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Split in two, the novel peeks at narrator Tony Webster’s youth as well as his present. Most of his memories revolve around two people: Adrian Finn, his grade-school friend and Veronica Ford, his university girlfriend. Now retired, Tony receives a call from a solicitor letting him know that he has inherited a small sum and some possessions from Veronica’s mother. As Tony reminisces and untangles memory from imagination, a very surprisingly plot begins to appear. In an interview with NPR, Barnes says:
I have a brother who’s a philosopher. He maintains that almost all memories are false, all fallible, and that memory is the act of imagination, rather than the act of a lucid remembering machine somewhere up in our brains. I have a more sort of old-fashioned, pragmatic view of memory. But I certainly increasingly think that it’s not only faulty but sometimes over-reliant on the imagination.
I do this all the time – look back on certain experiences and remember only the good or only the bad, or believe I remember an event just because I’ve heard a story repeated or seen a picture so many times. Memory is problematic in that way, but as Tony points out, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
Week #9: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
Published in 2006, The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud won the praise of the New York Times Book Review (Best Book of the Year in 2006). I admired the novel but didn’t quite agree with the encomiums found on its covers. Messud’s prose was flowery and detailed and I had to keep a dictionary nearby to keep up with her vocabulary. In spite of its nearly 500-page length, I flew through the novel’s short chapters about each character. I wanted to like or identify with the characters but they repelled me as I dove deeper into the story.
Let’s set the scene: Manhattan, spring of 2001, three thirty-somethings. Ten years after their graduation from the elite Brown University, Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke find themselves floundering. Danielle produces documentaries and has enjoyed the most professional success of her friends, yet she feels forced to pursue silly topics in lieu of the more significant issues she prefers. Because of her Midwestern roots, Danielle may be the most sensible of the trio. Marina finds herself living at home in her parent’s ritzy Manhattan apartment after a break-up. After five years of procrastination and no money left from her advance, Marina still hasn’t managed to complete her first book, choosing instead to act as her pundit father’s amanuensis. Julius, both half-Vietnamese and gay and hailing from Michigan, struggles to make ends meet as a freelance critic. When he begins work at a temp agency to pay rent for his shabby apartment, he hides his new job from his wealthier friends in embarrassment. Messud quickly cycles between these three actors, and her omniscient narrator tracks their intersection with three other important characters: Marina’s father Murray Thwaite, Murray’s nephew and devotee Frederick ‘Bootie’ Tubb, and the attractive Australian Ludovic Seeley.
The Emperor’s Children seemed to me an overly harsh depiction of privileged young adults. Although I enjoyed the plot and the pacing, I found myself disliking every character. This may have been Messud’s intention, to comment on the young elite, but I like to cling to at least one likeable or sympathetic character. Young, snobby, overeducated, immoral, and above all else, entitled, these three battle for the title of most despicable. Danielle, usually the moral center of the novel, enters into an affair with her best friend’s father. When Julius finally finds the Pierre to his Natasha he knows he should be satisfied, but instead he finds himself cheating with strangers. Marina’s lack of empathy is eclipsed only by her blind devotion to her father. Murray’s hypocrisy and Ludovic’s sliminess ooze off the page. Bootie may be the least despicable character in the story, but he bites the hand that feeds when he writes a scathing expose about his uncle. Even Marina’s saintly mother Annabel shows weakness when she refuses to acknowledge her husband’s not-so-secret affair.
The way that Messud plops September 11th at the end seems sloppy compared to the rest of the novel. Far from the focus of the novel, the tragic event seemed to be the convenient deus ex machina to tie up the plot. I can forgive her for this device because of how successful the rest of her plot was. Despite my tough review, I would definitely read Claire Messud again.
Week #9: Of Mice and Men
Recently I’ve focused on contemporary novels, but I took a break this week and read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. A short break, because this novella ran only 100 pages. I’m not sure how I missed this in school - I found two copies in our basement because my brothers read the novella as an assignment. Steinbeck impressed me with his eloquent and powerful simplicity. Migrant workers George and Lennie travel from farm to farm looking for work during the Depression. Lennie’s mild mental disability precludes the pair from finding stable employment; every time they find a new job Lennie gets himself into trouble. The novel opens as the two men travel to their next gig. Initially I was exasperated alongside George every time that Lennie asked a question, but eventually I fell in love with Lennie through George’s eyes. As they begin work at their new job everyone from the boss’ ornery son Curley to the black stable buck Crooks gives Lennie a hard time, but George always stands up to protect his friend. Steinbeck also emphasizes the impossibility of achieving the American dream. The pair fantasizes about owning their own farm and “living offa the fatta the lan’,” a sentiment that resonates with the contemporary American dream of home ownership.
After reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, I realized that I had never read Moby Dick. For years I aggressively tried to read every book on top classics lists just to keep up with the allusions made during my English classes. But there are a number of novels I have never gotten to, that I hope to someday…
- In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
- War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
- Moby Dick, Herman Melville
- The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
- The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
- Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes
- Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
- Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
- The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
- Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
Week #8: This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper,Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman
Judd Foxman and Tom Violet have many things in common: troubled marriages, vexing bosses, and snarky albeit well-meaning families. I read these novels by Tropper and Norman over the course of one weekend and found a number of similarities that I’d like to compare.
Judd Foxman sits shiva with his family and mother in fulfillment of his father’s dying wish. Mr. Foxman most often acted the atheist, but attended synagogue with his children for Jewish holidays. When asked why he persisted in such ritual, Mr. Foxman replied: “I’ve been wrong before.” The siblings and their celebrity shrink mother share a sarcastic humor that doesn’t jive with the setting of a family death, but that had me laughing at every turn. Judd’s family takes advantage of every chance to tease Judd about the infidelity of his wife Jen. She has cuckolded Judd with his boss, radio shock-jock Wade Boulanger, and the interloper has displaced Judd not only from his marriage but also from his home. Judd’s older sister Wendy potty trains her young children while her husband Barry spends most of his waking moments talking business on his cellphone. Youngest son and playboy Philip arrives with his life coach and now fiancee who is at least 15 years older. Paul, the first son and the only sibling still living at home and running their father’s sporting goods business tries unsuccessfully to conceive with his wife Alice, who also happens to be Judd’s first girlfriend. Judd narrates the novel and provides snapshots of his marriage interspersed throughout his week of grieving. Jen surprises Judd midway through the week with the news of her pregnancy - and guess whose baby it is? You’ll have to read to find out.
Tom Violet works an uninspiring copywriting job and lives in the shadow of his famous novelist father, Curtis. He has written a novel himself, but keeps it locked in his desk drawer at home and allows only his cute junior copywriter to read the draft. Tom’s wife Anna tries everything to inspire Tom in the bedroom in the hopes of having a second baby, but Tom fails to rise to the occasion. When Curtis breaks in one night drunk, he bears good news: he has won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. Thus begins Tom’s descent. He turns down a promotion at work, angers Anna by keeping a secret, and then discovers that his wife may be having an affair and that his daughter Allie may know all about it. When he crosses the line with his coworker, it may be too late for Tom to right things in his life.
Do all young married couples have affairs? Is marriage a doomed institution? And why are seven of the ten books I have read this year written by men? I enjoyed both of these books but I found myself wanting a female’s perspective on the situations pictured in these novels. I agree with Jennifer Weiner that women can write the great American novel just as well as all of those “dudes with MFAs”. New goal for 2012: try to read some of the female literary greats this year.
Week #5: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Week #6: Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
I found these books side by side on a shelf at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Both won bids for The Morning News’ Tournament of Books. I figured it might be fun to compare these as if I was the TMN tournament judge.
Charlie and Eli Sisters are the Sisters Brothers of the first title. The men are famous killers based out of Oregon, making a living on the gold-rush era West coast by following the orders of the mysterious man referred to only as the Commodore. Their latest target, Hermann Kermit Warm, has a secret recipe that the brothers must procure before completing their mission. Eli narrates the novel and his warm and introspective nature sets him in stark contrast contrast to Charlie, a power-hungry and mean drunk. Before I started reading, I was picturing a novel located somewhere between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. I wasn’t too far off; although mostly serious in tone, some of the brothers’ scrapes can only be described as slapstick. deWitt’s prose is simple and the novel was a quick read. A Man-Booker shortlisted novel, The Sisters Brothers gets my vote in this face-off.
When I read Candide by Voltaire in AP English, I remember thinking: I don’t get it. And that’s how I felt about Helen DeWitt’s satire, Lightning Rods. In a comment on corporate culture, (I guess?) protagonist Joe begins as an unsuccessful vacuum salesman and transforms himself into a success story by selling anonymous sex in the workplace. Maybe I had a difficult time connecting with this novel because of DeWitt’s dry tone, or maybe because the premise seemed so implausible. The romantic side of me didn’t want to believe that men would find such a scenario so pleasing. From what I have read in reviews, DeWitt seems to have a cult following after her first novel, The Last Samurai. I stuck with Lightning Rods until the end but wouldn’t recommend it to others.
Side by side, The Sisters Brothers definitely wins out. At least in my book.
Week #5: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
One of my favorite Pulitzer-prize winning novels is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (a winner in 2003). When I heard that Eugenides was releasing his first new novel in eight years, I jumped to add the novel to the top of my Christmas wish list.
After reading Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, I was surprised to find that The Marriage Plot is a coming-of-age story about three Brown students in the early 1980s. As Laura Miller points out in her Salon.com review, “[The Marriage Plot] doesn’t present itself as much more than the story of a young woman trying to decide between two suitors, the most attractive of whom is manifestly Not Good For Her — except for the fact that it is also an elegant argument on behalf of writing novels with just this sort of premise.”Madeleine, an English major at Brown University, is writing her thesis on the “marriage plot” of Eugenides’ title. The term refers to novels of courtship and for Madeleine this means books by authors like Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Anthony Trollope. Madeleine guiltily enjoys these 19th century novels much more than the tomes she is tasked with in her semiotics class senior year.
I don’t want to write too much at the risk of spoiling the story, but I do want to include some of my favorite quotes from the novel. I wish I had thought of these!
“There were some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things.”
“People don’t save other people. People save themselves.”
“Every letter was a love letter. Of course, as love letters went, this one could have been better. It was not very promising, for instance, that Madeleine claimed not to want to see him for the next half-century.”
“She’d become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”
Jim Stagnitto, WNYC engineer.
Week #4: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
Smart, brave, funny, imaginative – these adjectives all describe Arthur Phillips’ faux memoir. For the first few pages of this novel, I was confused about whether I had picked up an autobiography or a work of nonfiction or a truly new Shakespeare play. Arthur Phillips is both the author and the name of the main character, making this uncertainty inevitable. The novel poses as an introduction/memoir preceding the publication of the newly discovered Shakespeare play, ‘The Tragedy of Arthur.’ A convincing and elegant five-act Renaissance drama follows the novel. I’m no Shakespeare expert but I found the play compelling and similar to many of the bard’s histories.
Let me repeat – this guy had the guts to write a Shakespeare play, and he pulled it off convincingly! While I found sections of the introduction overly long, I loved the play and the battling footnotes of character Arthur Phillips and another reviewer (RV). I imagine the amount of research that Phillips put into writing the play must have been extensive.
The novel deserves a second and maybe a third read to really uncover all of the layers in Phillips motifs. The title character describes a life full of Shakespearian tropes: a set of close twins, a con-man father, a love triangle (or two), an abundance of hubris, and an unreliable narrator. These themes are mirrored in the play (not surprisingly, since, SPOILER, Arthur’s father is in fact the true author of the play and its publication is his last big con). Phillips uses the name Arthur and the idea of tragedy doubly throughout the novel.
I would definitely recommend this one, especially to Shakespeare fans… or haters.